The Christian assembly or church can be viewed as a body much like a human body (1 Cor 12). A human body is made up of individual cells that when put together make the whole. Individual cells die and others divide. Over time, the individual cells that make up a human body may change numerous times, but the body remains the same. So it is with the Church. First, in the greater sense it was created at Pentecost (Acts 2) with just a few individual “cells.” The Church was born. And then, in the local sense. Individual expressions of the Body of Christ are established in localities and are called assemblies or churches. These assemblies all have a birth, they all have a life, and they all have “personalities” that affect how they mature. Sadly, many suffer a death. This is the warning given by the Lord Jesus Christ to the assembly at Ephesus (Rev 2:5). The warning to Ephesus doesn’t mean the individual believers would lose their salvation, it just means if they didn’t repent, a time would come when there would be no meeting of believers in that area.
As with humans, an assembly can experience “infant mortality,” where the assembly as a whole, because it is never grounded on the Word of the Lord Jesus Christ (His Gospel and His ways, see 1 Cor 3-4), never grows to maturity, but rather dies. The founding “cells” of the assembly may indeed have been firmly grounded as individuals, but for whatever reason, they fail to properly convey that foundation to the subsequent generation. The sad result is that that assembly ceases to be. It dies as a Gospel light in a dead world. To prevent this, mature men in every locale must step forward to teach the body of believers all the counsel of God (2 Tim 2:2, Acts 20:27).
An assembly can also suffer illness as the disease of sin invades it. As with so many diseases of the human body, the infection often originates from outside. The world’s methods and ways can drain the energy of an assembly before the assembly even knows it’s sick. While focusing on all that appears wise and necessary to the neglect of the plain revelation of the Scriptures, man’s tradition can take hold like a fever that may never relent. Definite and serious measures must be taken for the health of the assembly if it is ever to recover. The traditions of men must be abandoned completely and the “ways of Christ” re-established (1 Cor 4:17). Many chronic diseases begin very subtly, almost undetectable, like so many seemingly “good” ideas in the churches. In the end, after some generations, those “good” ideas may very well bring about the death of the assembly as has happened so many times throughout church history.
But disease doesn’t always originate from the outside. Cancer, for example, begins and grows from within the body itself and spreads throughout. With such a disease, there is only one sure remedy; the cancer must be removed. Despite the pain of the surgery and despite what a world with its misunderstanding of love might think, any sin must be cut out from the body. If left unchecked it will in time spread and bring about the absolute end of that church as a light of Christ’s Gospel. The cancer must be cut out without mercy and without hesitation in accordance with the Word of God (1 Cor 5:7,13; 2 Cor 2:5-8). Allowing a disease to fester and grow in a person is not showing wisdom and kindness. And neither is allowing sin to take root unchecked among the people of God in the Lord’s churches.
As distressful as it is to see a person kept physically alive by man’s medical mechanisms, how much worse is it to see an assembly, professing faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, being held together by nothing but the spiritual equivalent of a life-support machine. To the church of Sardis, the Lord Jesus said, “…Thou hast a name that thou livest, and art dead” (Rev 2:1). So many churches of all sorts and persuasions are dead, kept alive only through fund-raising, attractive contemporary music, etc. Few of these places started out that way. How many assemblies are even now relying on man’s methods to boost numbers and “grow”? Or, indeed, to keep people from leaving?
Josiah, King of Judah, found the Book of God’s Word which had been lost in the house of God (2 Kings 22:8, 2 Chron 34:15). And it was through strict obedience to that Word and dependence on God Himself that Josiah saw a tremendous spiritual revival among God’s people. Likewise now, the solutions to the very legitimate problems facing the churches today simply don’t lie in the world; they don’t lie in any of man’s wisdom or methods. They can only be found through practical faith in the person of the Book, the Lord Jesus Christ. And those solutions will be experienced alone through the study of His Word and faithful obedience to Him. Ever so slowly, the “Book” is getting harder and harder to find among God’s people, in the “House of God.” The body is very sick indeed.
In the end, the promise of the Lord Jesus Christ is sure: “Upon this rock, I will build my church, and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it” (Mat 16:18). The Rock is Christ (1 Cor 10:4). He is the foundation (1 Cor 3:11). He must remain the focus and head in all things to the individual and to the assembly (Eph 1:22), including His methods (e.g. 1 Cor 14:37). As our desire is to bring pleasure to the heart of God, we ought to take great care what we do in relation to Christ’s Body, the Church and its local expression (1 Cor 3:12). It is not good enough to be hearers of the Word (James 1:22). If we love the Lord Jesus Christ, we will obey Him even when it’s difficult or even when it seems impossible to us (John 14:15,24; 1 Cor 16:21). God’s desire is that the churches should not remain in the infant stage, but that they should live and grow to maturity in Christ Jesus our Lord (Eph 4:15-16). Let us take to heart what God said to Joshua concerning obedience to the Word, “Be thou strong and very courageous, that thou mayest observe to do according to all the law, … that thou mayest prosper whithersoever thou goest” (Josh 1:7). May we seek and enjoy good health in the Lord’s assemblies.